What Happens If You Die Without a Will?

by | Aug 30, 2022 | Blog

If you die without a will, the laws of whatever state you lived (or owned property) in will dictate how your estate gets distributed. If last week’s blog post didn’t give you reason enough to create and regularly update your will, maybe this week will do the trick!

What Happens if you Die Without a Will?

Every day, people die intestate. Intestate is a fancy way of saying they die without a will. This opens the door for the courts to decide what happens with their estates.

When no valid will exists, state intestacy laws dictate how assets are distributed. These laws may divide an estate evenly (or equitably) among heirs. Any assets held in joint tenancy may go to the joint owner. Assets held in a trust may transfer to the trust beneficiaries (with spouses getting a share of those assets in some states). Community property may go to a spouse or partner in community property states.

Intestate laws mostly follow common sense in terms of distributing the assets. It is important to remember that there is not a one-size fits all approach. And that these are generalities.

In most case the following occurs… If you are married, your estate will be passed to your spouse. If you are married with children, your estate will be passed to your spouse and children. If you are single with children, your estate will be passed to your children.

If you are single with no children, your estate will be passed to your parents. And if you are single, with no children and no parents your estate will be passed on to your siblings. Beyond that, cousins start to get involved.

It’s important to remember that step-children, long-term partners and loved ones who are not family are not included in most intestate laws.

Simple, right? Unfortunately, the way assets transfer under these laws may not correspond to the wishes of the deceased person. Did the decedent want some of his or her estate to go to a charity or a person close to them? These laws will not allow this. State law may also decide who is the executor of the estate since the decedent never named one.

If the deceased person designated beneficiaries for his or her retirement accounts and life insurance policy, the retirement accounts and insurance proceeds should be transferred to these beneficiaries without dispute, even when no will exists. When life insurance policies and retirement accounts lack designated beneficiaries, the assets are lumped into the decedent’s estate and subject to intestacy laws.

The other option, to side step this whole process is to have a will in place ahead of time and to make all of these decisions yourself.

If you want to take things a step further, you can even do what’s called a Letter of Intent for your loved ones.

What Is a Letter of Intent?

A letter of intent is a personal message designed to reduce the emotional burden of sorting through a loved one’s property. But it is also a keepsake and can contain final messages to loved ones.

A letter of intent is not a legal document. It is a letter to loved ones or an executor of a will. It acts as a message from the deceased and can include an array of information from providing organization and outlining last wishes, to detailing information and sending personal messages. 

Think of a will as sorting out the big stuff… investments, property, other large assets. And think of a letter of intent as sorting out the small stuff… what to do with personal belongings, funeral wishes, beneficiary contact information, personal passwords/account information.

A letter of intent is all about the details. Basically, the idea is to make things as easy as possible for the executor of your estate. Put everything important in one place so they don’t have to go scrounging around for it. It frees loved ones to mourn and provides a small piece of comfort during a challenging time. 

There is no level of assets and no amount of family that makes having a will more/less important. It is important for everyone. Having your assets go where you want can really make a difference in the world. And if you die without a will, you leave that up to chance. Wouldn’t it be better to have control over where your livelihood is directed?

**Please remember we are not estate planning attorneys. While we are well versed in this area, we do not write wills or other estate documents. **

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